The Catholic University of America

Nora Conley

Grad Student Explores Race through Theatre


M.F.A. playwriting candidate Tearrance Chisholm has always been driven to create. Today that drive comes through in his original plays exploring the African-American experience. But as a child growing up in St. Louis, Chisholm spent a lot of time working on art projects.

“I’ve always been into drawing,” Chisholm said. “Some of my earliest memories are of drawing, coloring, or making pictures.”

Those early interests followed Chisholm into his college years at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where he studied fine arts and graphic design. Chisholm would spend long hours in art studios, working on paintings or ceramic projects.

“I began to get kind of burned out,” Chisholm said. “I took creative writing and that was the class I used to balance out all my studio work. Then I took so much short fiction that they wouldn’t let me take it anymore, so I had to take playwriting.”

At first, Chisholm hated playwriting because of its constraints: the challenge of creating beauty through dialogue alone. But then his first play received a few awards, including an honor from the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival that allowed him to visit D.C. After that, Chisholm was hooked. He decided to move to Washington and pursue playwriting.

“It’s been a love affair ever since that initial visit,” he said. “I got to see some local theatres and see that you can actually make a career out of playwriting.”

After earning his undergraduate degree in 2008, Chisholm got a job in a call center and went into business with a friend designing promotional art for political campaigns. In his spare time, he continued to write.

Thanks to a connection he made through his experience with the Kennedy Center, Chisholm was invited to participate in a summer playwriting initiative at Sweet Briar College. He also started a personal blog in which he wrote about his efforts to learn about theatre by reading and seeing as many plays as he could. The more Chisholm learned, the more he realized what he didn’t know.

“Since I studied graphic design in undergrad, I knew I didn’t know a lot about theatre,” Chisholm said. “I was sort of doing my own education, but I knew there was stuff I was missing and I wanted to study it in an academic way.”

Chisholm also noticed that many playwriting programs and grants require master’s degrees. For those reasons, he decided to enroll in the M.F.A in Playwriting program at CUA.

Today, Chisholm is in the second year of the program. He also works parttime for D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office, doing graphic design. He believes his experience at CUA has helped him build connections and study past and contemporary playwrights he would not have found on his own.

“The curriculum has really opened up my playwriting,” Chisholm said. “The stuff I’m writing now I never would have written before I came here.”

Chisholm’s plays have continued to receive acclaim. This year, his play Hooded: Being Black for Dummies was honored with the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival’s First Place Hip Hop Creator Award, the Second Place Lorraine Hansberry Award, and as a finalist for the Bay Area Playwrights Conference. Chisholm will also be listed in an upcoming list of Variety magazine’s “110 Students to Watch” in the entertainment industry.

Currently, Chisholm is working on a musical project and a collaboration with fellow MFA playwriting candidate Elena Velasco. He’s also preparing his thesis play, which will be produced on campus next spring.

Chisholm said he enjoys playwriting because it combines multiple artistic mediums and allows him to collaborate with others.

“You write this thing alone and then you hand it over and the discoveries actors and directors make can really bring a new life to the play,” he said.

He also enjoys being able to share his perspective and see the response.

“It definitely is rewarding in that sometimes I’m shocked that people care,” he said. “To see all types of people respond to the work, and not because it’s a black work but because it’s a human story, taught me that I’m not quite as alone as I thought I was. Just being able to express myself and have people care about it is a win.”


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Tearrance Chisholm

Hometown: St. Louis

Favorite playwrights: Tennessee Williams, August Wilson, and Tarrell Alvin McCraney

Favorite place in D.C.: The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

Favorite course at CUA: Dramatic Structures with Drew Lichtenberg. "That class led to my existential breakdown, which changed everything I think about myself."